May 5, 2013

Never Let Me Go: A Panoramic Review (Adult)

"From the acclaimed author of The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans, a moving new novel that subtly reimagines our world and time in a haunting story of friendship and love.

As a child, Kathy – now thirty-one years old – lived at Hailsham, a private school in the scenic English countryside where the children were sheltered from the outside world, brought up to believe that they were special and that their well-being was crucial not only for themselves but for the society they would eventually enter. Kathy had long ago put this idyllic past behind her, but when two of her Hailsham friends come back into her life, she stops resisting the pull of memory.

And so, as her friendship with Ruth is rekindled, and as the feelings that long ago fueled her adolescent crush on Tommy begin to deepen into love, Kathy recalls their years at Hailsham. She describes happy scenes of boys and girls growing up together, unperturbed – even comforted – by their isolation. But she describes other scenes as well: of discord and misunderstanding that hint at a dark secret behind Hailsham’s nurturing facade. With the dawning clarity of hindsight, the three friends are compelled to face the truth about their childhood–and about their lives now.

A tale of deceptive simplicity, Never Let Me Go slowly reveals an extraordinary emotional depth and resonance – and takes its place among Kazuo Ishiguro’s finest work.
" (from Goodreads)
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

***SPOILER ALERT: It's pretty much impossible to discuss this book in any depth without spoiling, so be prepared for general spoilers about the book's premise in this review.

My reaction: A warning right off the bat – this is a book that makes you think. It's also rather bleak and depressing. So if you aren't a fan of either of those factors, you might want to choose some other reading material.

The dystopian/alternate-reality premise of Never Let Me Go is really just sort of a jumping-off point for exploring a girl's coming-of-age in a bit of a different light, because she's a "donor" (i.e. a clone). So yes, it touches on how life would be different for people who are donors, but it also touches on some topics that are very universal. Most of the book is very slow-moving, and the focus is not so much on the dystopian nature of the society as it is a chronicle of Kathy's life up until the present (skipping a number of years in between). As this is told from Kathy's perspective as a grown woman, going over her memories, it's written in quite a conversational, rambling sort of style. In the grand scheme of things, the story moves forward in a logical, chronological fashion, but within each time frame, Kathy jumps backward and forward a bit. This makes things a little confusing to follow if you're trying to map everything out in sequential order, but to the author's credit, Kathy does manage to strike up a rapport of sorts with the reader.

It's also at least partially an explanation for how she and the other Hailsham students ended up in this situation without rebelling. Spoilers, highlight to read: Still, I did find it rather unbelievable that no one makes any escape attempts in this book. The donors all seem so complacent and docile with their status as spare parts; yes, this is thanks to the brainwashing happening, but you'd think there would have been some rebellion attempt dredged up. As for the ending, I found it unsatisfying – it didn't feel full and complete enough for me.

Generally, the characters are well drawn. I found Kathy easy to relate to, with a sympathetic voice. She makes mistakes, but she's someone you can root for. I didn't feel like I had such a good grasp of Tommy's mindset, but his character stands out in a couple ways. He's a little unpredictable in how he'll react to something, and he's thoughtful and reflective (even as a teenage guy). Unfortunately, we don't get enough of Miss Emily or Madame to really understand their characters. Miss Lucy has promise — ostensibly she's the closest one to a "rebel" in here — so it was disappointing that she remains on the sidelines through the first part of the book, and then is absent entirely in the latter part.

The relationship between Kathy and Ruth is quite fascinating. Ruth is very complicated, and for most of the book I didn't like her. She is manipulative, selfish, self-absorbed, and cares way too much about what other people think of her. She always has to be the center of attention, and she enjoys being in control, pulling the strings of the puppets around her. Towards the end, it seems like she somewhat redeems herself, or at least acknowledges how in the wrong she was, and it did make me soften towards her a little. She has her good moments, but a lot of the time she is a pretty sorry excuse for a friend. Kathy's not perfect either — she can be purposefully mean sometimes as well — but Ruth was deliberately spiteful and cruel on multiple occasions. It was practically her default. 

Best aspect: the neat questions and concepts this book raises. There's a lot in here about the innocence of children, and individuals who have been raised in a very sheltered manner and effectively brainwashed, in how they approach the world. Most of the donors in this book are very naive in some ways, and they don't really question things a lot and even if they do, they don't really know what society is like outside of the bubble of Hailsham, or even the bubble of their donor community once they move on from Hailsham. I think there's a good deal of psychology at play, in how the donors are educated about their function in society. The adults in charge introduce this idea very slowly and gradually throughout the donors' lives, giving them a little bit more information as they get older, so they don't really understand what they're being told each time. Since they don't question it, though, it has time to sink into their general consciousness, and become part of the general knowledge base that they then draw on. 

Never Let Me Go also brings up an excellent question: is it better to be brought up in ignorance and be happy, not knowing that you're going to die much earlier than most people because you were created to be spare body parts for others to use? Or would it be better for the donors to be told at a much earlier age exactly what's going to happen to them, and take away that innocent happiness of childhood because they know they're going to die? Personally I feel like the truth would be more important, but it's an interesting, debatable sort of conundrum.

If I could change something... I'd give the relationship between Kathy and Tommy more emotional heft. Although I definitely thought there was potential there, and I could see they shared a similarity in world view – sort of like "kindred spirits" – I never felt the romantic pull between them. Spoilers: they were initially just friends, and while there were very subtle hints it never amounted to anything until much later. When it finally did, they just skipped everything else and went right to sex; it seemed like a very abrupt transition, and we don't really get to see how they feel about each other once they are in that relationship. (Granted, we do see that they are emotionally drawn to each other throughout their years at Hailsham.)
Also, I wish we'd seen more of the outside society. I find it a little unbelievable that once the donors left the school, they didn't find out more about how the real world works and how people who are not donors function. It just seems like they're blind for so unbelievably long! I wish we'd seen more of the general society's reaction to these donors, just more of the "regular" people's perspectives. It's quite a communal mental bubble the donors live in.

If you haven't read it: and you like books in the vein of Brave New World or The Handmaid's Tale, then you might want to give this one a try. You shouldn't go into it expecting an action-packed dystopian fight-against-the-system sort of read, but rather a woman recalling her story growing up as a clone in this society. 
If you have read it: were you also left wondering who took a certain item of Kathy's? (Spoiler: the tape! Who stole it???)

Just one more thing I want to mention:
I liked the idea of Norfolk being this place of lost things; it's a thread running throughout, this hopeful, innocent idea that you can find the things you lose in life in Norfolk.

Final verdict: 4 shooting stars. While Never Let Me Go is not a feel-good book by any stretch of the imagination, I enjoyed it in a way. It's depressing, sad, and frankly left me feeling a little hollow — but it is well-written. Questions are brought up without being in-your-face about it, and without shoving an obvious message down the reader's throat.


  1. I tried reading this one when it first came out. I loved the premise but it didn't go anywhere. I was bored and confused. Completely forgot about it until the movie came out. Now I'm wondering if I wasn't ready for it back then. Thanks for the in-depth review and the heads up on the lack of action in its plot!

  2. I haven't heard of this but I am so intrigued by your review, the school sounds mysterious and I have to agree that I think the truth would be better, but I guess some people would choose not to know


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